Space hack: Jupiter on $1 million?

Thanks to its standard, modular shape and deployment methods, CubeSats over the past decade have made access to space a realistic proposition for tinkerers and astro engineers alike. Projects ranging from simple student demonstration satellites to serious science have been flown.

Through its partners at the University of Kentucky and Morehead State University (MSU), Kentucky Space is working on a couple of new cubes. KySat-2 is a single-unit spacecraft (the spacecraft are created in one-, two- and three-unit sizes) that Kentucky Space has covered extensively through its "K2 Tuesday" series. Lest you believe the spacecraft are mere toys, a follow-on to the Cosmic X-ray Background Nanosatellite is being developed at MSU to study the X-ray relic radiation from the Big Bang - it may make a significant contribution to cosmology.

Serious stuff, that.

If a University of Michigan group has its way, however, a new plasma propulsion system may further revolutionize spaceflight, by making interplanetary CubeSats feasible.

The scientists and engineers are developing a new plasma propulsion system designed for ultrasmall CubeSats. If all goes well, they say, it may be possible to launch a life-detection mission to Jupiter's ocean-harboring moon Europa or other intriguing worlds for as little as $1 million in the not-too-distant future.

What's the big deal?

Unlike explosive chemical propulsion systems, which discharge gasses under high pressure and are powerful but inefficient, ion and plasma thrusters use the comparatively gentle method of electrically accelerating ions using benign propellants such as water. The result is a quite modest but efficient motor that can produce phenomenally high speeds given a sufficient period of time. It can't be used to escape the Earth's gravity well, but long duration spaceflight becomes much more affordable. Match that motor with the Kleenex tissue box-sized CubeSat and interplanetary flight on a budget is within reach.

The proposed engine is not unlike the ion thruster aboard the much larger proto-planetary explorer Dawn, and will weigh less than one pound, while its water or iodine supply of propellant will weigh a scant five pounds.

The creators of the CubeSat Ambipolar Thruster, or CAT, are seeking funding to launch a demonstration flight sometime in the next 18 months, according to the piece, "New Space Engine Could Turn Tiny CubeSats into Interplanetary Explorers:"

Raising $200,000 should make all of this possible, while meeting other funding milestones will allow the CAT team to tackle 'stretch goals.' If the Kickstarter campaign nets $500,000, for example, the team will fast-track its space trip by purchasing a commercial launch, while raising $900,000 will enable a two-CubeSat 'space race' to escape Earth orbit.

Building on another recent development in space exploration, the team is seeking funds through a Kickstarter campaign. The crowdfunding site has successfully helped fund a CubeSat-sized Arduino-powered science testbed, ArduSat; a social media powered, single-unit CubeSat called SkyCube that will tweet from space; and ARKYD, a sharable space telescope, which is part of a much more ambitious enterprise to eventually mine asteroids.  

At IdeaFestival 2013, Ariel Waldman will present a "Hackers Guide to the Galaxy," a discussion of all the ways in which ordinary people with ordinary budgets can explore the final frontier. Don't miss it!

I'll post a video interview with Ariel to the blog soon. 

Stay curious.


Image: CAT: A Thruster for Interplanetary CubeSats on KickStarter.